As an Arkansas native I’ve always known that we have some stellar places to eat. Everywhere I go in the state there is a fantastic feast waiting at a restaurant, diner or roadside stand. Which is good because I love food.
The state is famous for southern staples such as fried catfish, barbeque and pie but our food is also influenced by our proximity to the southwestern flair of Texas. As we are an agricultural community a traditional Arkansas meal always includes a generous helping of something that was grown nearby. Purple hull peas slow cooked with a ham hock, cornbread, sliced tomatoes and fried okra are all sides you’ll find on the dinner table in Arkansas.
We’ve never strayed far from our culinary roots, but the national trend for locally sourced ingredients has produced a number of sensational restaurants that specialize in home-style cooking with a contemporary twist. How about catfish served over a bed of hoppin’ John and fried okra? Or perhaps a grilled pork chop with creamed corn, peppers and almonds. Are you hungry yet?
Arkansans aren’t the only folks who recognize what our state has to offer. Recently Forbes Travel Guides included our capital city Little Rock as one of five secret foodie spots with shot outs to Ashley’s, Ciao Baci, ZaZa’s Fine Salad + Wood-Oven Pizza Co. and Whole Hog Cafe.
In addition to these recommendations I have a few others that I suggest you try for a plate full of local flavor featuring seasonal ingredients.
Brave New Restaurant – Get the mixed grill that includes a variety of grilled meats served with an herbed demi glace.
South on Main – This is where you will find the fried catfish and hoppin’ John. Yum!
Trio’s – In the summer they have a farmers’ market plate with seasonal vegetables that’s wonderful.
Table 28 – The restaurant offers unusual interpretations of southern favorites. Make reservations for a seat at the chef’s table (table 28) for an exclusive 6-course meal prepared and served by Chef Rains.
The Root Café – Great burgers and sweet potato fries. A definite must if you have a hankering for breakfast on a Saturday morning.
Capital Hotel Bar and Grill – The Friday lunch special is red sauce braised brisket with rice bread and chow chow. That’s what I’m talking about!
The Hive – If you love a good pork chop this is the place to go. Chef Matthew McClure sources the pork from a local farmer raising heritage pigs known for their exceptionally tender and flavorful meat. Oh, and be sure to stop in at the nearby Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The current exhibit is a collection of French modern masters including Matisse, Cezanne and Degas. It will be on view until July 7, 2014.
28 Springs – You can’t come south and not eat chicken and dumplings. Savory herb gravy and a flaky biscuit crust make these some of the best chicken and dumplings to be had.
The Farmer’s Table Café – One look at the breakfast menu and you’ll know why this place is the talk of the town. The Hash Skillet is to die for.
HEIRLOOM food + wine – A glass of wine and a platter filled with artisanal cheeses, seasonal fruit, walnuts, honeycomb and fig-rosemary crackers plus an amiable companion? Is there a better way to end the day?
Special thanks to Lyndi over at NWAFoodie.com for recommending some great restaurants in northwest Arkansas!
It’s astounding to me but it wasn’t until 1963 that someone thought to fry a dill pickle. I know, right? Bernell “Fatman” Austin was the first to serve these treats at the Duchess Drive In in Atkins, Arkansas and they’ve been a southern staple ever since. If you don’t believe me try them and get back to me. Here’s a recipe that is similar to those served at a local catfish joint.
1 quart jar dill pickle slices
2 teaspoon red pepper
2 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoon black pepper
8 ounces milk
5 – 6 drops hot sauce
2 cups flour
Mix egg, milk, hot sauce, and 1 tablespoon of flour in bowl and set aside.
In a separate bowl combine the red pepper, paprika, black pepper and 2 cups of flour.
In a large, deep skillet or fry cooker heat vegetable oil to 375 degrees.
Dip the pickle slices in the egg and milk mixture, then dredge them through the flour and spices, then the egg and milk again and then the flour once more.
Next drop the battered pickles into the hot oil and fry until they float to the surface and turn a nice golden brown.
Here we are smack dab in the middle of winter and I’m starting to miss walking to the vegetable garden, snips in hand, to gather ingredients for dinner. To tide me over until it’s time to plant spring crops I’m actually growing a few things indoors. I won’t be harvesting any tomatoes, but at least I can get my hands dirty and enjoy the satisfaction of adding a few fresh ingredients to my recipes.
Here are five edibles you can grow indoors this winter.
During the holidays, I always look forward to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a Smith Family Christmas. The holiday traditions of my family have been carried throughout the years, and I love passing our family stories and recipes on to my nieces and nephews. This year, though, I’m hoping to create a new tradition around the dinner table with an alternative to our typical recipes- this year, I’m making Pekin Duck.
Pekin Duck is one of my favorite “sounds fancy, cooks easy” main dishes, and when paired with a citrus glaze it is a beautiful and delicious meal with a holiday twist. Long Island Ducks are what we know as “Pekin.” They were bred in China and in 1873, exported to Long Island. It’s the most common duck meat consumed in the U.S. and in my opinion, the tastiest. We tend to rely on the holiday meal staples, but I think trying out a different bird this year will be a hit and hopefully start a tradition of trying new recipes each holiday.
Thanksgiving is the big holiday for my family- no matter where we host it, we’re all in a frenzy of activity. The kids are playing in the yard, uncles and aunts are enjoying the fire, and my cousins, siblings and I are busy catching up while also putting the finishing touches on lunch. When we finally sit down at the table, though, it’s hard to talk to everyone during lunch because everyone in my family loves to eat.
I find that it just takes one recipe to bridge the gap between the adult and kid’s table, though. Desserts are always a good go-to, but last year I tried fresh Brussels sprouts. I know what you’re thinking- “my kids would never eat Brussels sprouts!” But try this recipe and I bet you’ll be surprised just how many members of your family ask for seconds.
Do you want more information on heritage apples? Check out my column in this month’s AY Magazine. Click here to read it online.
This time of year sends my senses into a whirlwind. I love how so many of the sights, sounds and smells around me proudly announce autumn’s arrival. Heritage apples are the perfect example- come November, their colors are bright, their taste is crisp and fresh, and their smell… well, there is nothing better than the smell of baking apples wafting through the house.
The week leading up to Thanksgiving is one in which I don’t spend much time cooking, but I couldn’t help throwing together this 5-ingredient Apple Tart Tatin recipe yesterday. It is quick and easy to make, and I might even add it to the Thanksgiving menu because it certainly gets me in the mood for the holidays.
1 pre-made piecrust
1/2 cup sugar in the raw
6 apples, peeled cored and quartered
7 ounces butter
3/4 cup sugar
In a heavy, oven safe, 9-inch skillet combine 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup sugar in the raw with 7 ounces of butter. Cook over a medium high heat until amber in color and brown around the edges. This should take about 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat and carefully circle the apple wedges around the skillet positioning them so they all face in the same direction. Place the apples as tightly together as possible because they will shrink during cooking.
Top the apples with a round pie crust that overlaps the skillet by about 1/2 inch all around. Fold the crust overlap toward the center. Push the edge of the pie crust down into the skillet with a rubber spatula or something similar to seal all the apple goodness inside. Cut 3 or 4 vent holes in the top of the crust.
Bake in the pre-heated 350 degree F oven for about 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove the skillet from the oven and cool. Place a dish at least 1-inch larger in diameter than the skillet on top of the skillet. Carefully flip the tart to where the pie crust is now on the bottom with the plate.
If there’s one thing I really love about Arkansas, it’s got to be the sense of community. People know each other by name here; know about their families and lives and what they like to get up to on the weekend. Recently, there’s been a lot of development of that community-vibe in our food system. I’ve been thinking about local food sources and the community it creates, and so I went out and spoke with a few people from restaurants or markets that source local ingredients.
We throw that term “local” around loosely, but what does it really mean?
“Food you love from people you know- that’s really what it’s about. It’s more than getting yourself full, it’s a connection,” said Stephanie Hamling, a jack-of-all-trades at North Little Rock’s Argenta Market.
The Argenta Market is a grocery and deli in the downtown community of Argenta that draws clientele and goods, from the adjacent Saturday farmer’s market. Hamling said there’s a good “synergy” between the two – Argenta Market offers the farmers free coffee, and when the farmer’s market ends they’ll come in to see what we need for the upcoming week in produce, jams, cheese, and sauces.
“We have over 100 local vendors, and they make this a destination spot,” Hamling said. She works on the website, manages customer service, and sources local products, but while she was originally a graphic artist, it’s the relationship with the customers that is her real concern. She said that she knows 75% of the people who walk through the front door, and while I was having lunch from the deli I saw her walk up to a man and hand him a gift certificate because she “appreciates him always coming to visit them.”
That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about community. But there’s more to it than that.
Loblolly Creamery is soda fountain a few blocks from our office. The digital team takes a walk over there at least once a week – it’s their “spot”, so to speak. For Sally Mengel, co-owner of the artisan ice cream shop, a local business is one that supports its community.
“We do that by buying all local ingredients and making everything from scratch,” the artisan ice cream maker said.
While we talked about their small-batch ice creams and traditional Arkansas ingredients, Sally said hi to a few customers by name, and knew what a couple of them were going to order.
“It makes it more enjoyable – you know who you’re serving, you get to know people. We’re creating this dialogue- we’re not a traditional soda fountain, sometimes we don’t even have vanilla. We’re kind of opening people’s perceptions and palettes… All with local ingredients.”
I like to buy Arkansas ingredients for a lot of reasons – I’m from Arkansas, want to support my fellow farmers and have those dollars flowing back into my state’s economy. Like Jack Sundell, from The Root Café, said, “whether its food or a hammer from a hardware store, if you seek out local suppliers you’re supporting all that local business, a place that has its own personality, and your community on the whole.”
But Brandon Brown, owner of Hillcrest Artisan Meats (“H.A.M.”), noted that “local” is kind of a trendy topic, and one that doesn’t always work for a business model.
“There’s a big difference between local food and good local food,” he said. “I think that people fall into a trap of ‘just because it’s local it’s great.’ There’s a lot of local stuff that’s not great.”
While we sat in the in the charcuterie, rich aromas hanging in the air, Brown pointed out the pictures adorning the wall – pictures from the farms where they source their meat, both in Arkansas and around it. He and his wife moved to Arkansas from Oregon, and saw an immediate need for a free-range, grass-fed meat source and started to befriend farmers, some of whom are in those photos.
“We were really disappointed in the food that’s available in Little Rock – so we opened this place out of selfishness and necessity!” he said with a laugh.
And that’s why he, and others, see the local food movement as an opportunity to educate.
“People expect to come here and have every vegetable or egg to be local. I try to explain that we don’t have local milk because our last local dairy closed a few years ago or that you just can’t grow avocados in Arkansas, so we have to source them from somewhere else,” Hamling said about Argenta Market. “I think we’re educators more than anything else.”
Part of that education means explaining that the price of high-quality, locally grown food is worth the extra cash.
Brown told a story of a first time customer coming in to pick up a whole chicken. When Brown rang his total up- about $20 for just the bird- the man was appalled by the price, but bought it anyway. By the next afternoon, the customer had posted to HAM’s Facebook page an essay about just how wonderful that chicken was and how he’d never buy another commercial chicken again.
“It’s really expensive to grow meat well, without hormones. What we buy it for reflects that, what we sell it for has to reflect that,” Hamling said.
Sundell says that there’s no comparison between these high-quality local foods and industrial products – people want good taste and good health.
“People are interesting in eating healthier. You’re eating local food closer to the time it was picked, so it just has more nutritional value than a tomato that was picked two weeks ago, shipped green, & sprayed with ethylene gas to ripen. It looks like a tomato, but it doesn’t taste like a tomato,” Sundell said. “Another big issue is transparency. You hear about food borne illnesses and outbreaks – that type of thing rarely happens when you’re dealing with a local food system because production isn’t so industrialized.”
And less industrialization means better tasting food.
“It doesn’t take a chef or a knowledgeable food critic to taste the difference between an Arkansas tomato and a store-bought tomato. There’s no comparison.” Sundell said.
When I go to the farmer’s market, I see a mixed bag of people both selling and shopping – young, old, first-time farmers, third-generation land owners. But eating local food isn’t a new idea.
“Before there was convenience food and all these packaged goods, people grew their own food and had to buy from farmers… But now it’s becoming more valued,” Mengel said.
Hamling echoed that sentiment.
“In generations past everybody was trying to get off the farm, but now I think people are looking for community and connection where they can get it, like going back to the land, and we want to support that.”
Like I said, I love the community aspect of my home state. We support our farmers, and there is a growing movement of people who want to make that more common. I think local food and the fellowship it creates is a powerful movement, but I couldn’t say it better than Jack Sundell does.
“I don’t see it as something that’s a passing fad. With local food, it’s something that builds community so naturally and it’s something that people really crave and haven’t had access to. When they come together over good food, I think they get something special that you can’t just find anywhere.”
When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to know where your food came from. I don’t mean which grocery store or restaurant- I’m talking about food that went from the ground onto your dinner table, I’m talking about farms and farmers, gardens and gardeners. I’ve spent most of my life on a farm, but I know that this isn’t the reality for most Americans.
My social media coordinator Anna Claire really cares about food systems- in fact, that’s one of the reasons we get along best. But she didn’t grow up on a farm, in fact she just started gardening this year. During one of our discussions I suggested she take advantage of a local resource – Heifer Ranch, a division of Heifer International. Located just outside of town, it’s a great place to learn about community supported agriculture and pick up a few pointers for her garden. I thought you might be interested in hearing about it too.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a combination of knowing your farmer, growing your own, and going to a farmer’s market… all in one. At its most basic level, a CSA allows a farmer to offer a certain number of “shares” to the public and in return for buying that share, shareholders receive a box of vegetables (or flowers, eggs, bread, or whatever else was produced at the farm that week) each week throughout the farming season.
The model has taken hold across the nation- tens of thousands of families hold shares in CSAs and in some areas there aren’t enough farms to support the demand. It just so happens that Heifer Ranch has a one acre vegetable garden that serves a CSA of about 60 members that each pay $350 a season, or about $20 a week for a basket of approximately 10 items. Some weeks you’ll get more – when Anna Claire visited the CSA drop-off, shareholders were getting 12 items and a $40 value- and some weeks you’ll get less. But each week you know that you’re getting fresh, typically organic produce because you know your farmer and you know your farm.
And that’s not the only advantage- because you receive only fruits and vegetables that are in season, you get exposed to new vegetables and ways of cooking. And the farmer benefits just as much as the consumer – instead of spending a couple of days a week driving to and sitting at a market just hoping that someone will stop in and buy something, they spend time marketing their food earlier in the season so that when the longer days in the field begin, they don’t have to worry about cash flow because the food is already purchased. Therefore, you’re supporting local business, too.
On the flip side, there is a sense of “shared risk” when it comes to CSAs. When a shareholder buys in, they’re agreeing to accept whatever food is offered. Last year, the Heifer CSA had a tough spell when a flash flood left them cabbage-less after months of tending the garden. CSA baskets for consumers were lighter for the next couple of weeks. This year, there seems to be an endless supply of broccoli, so consumers may be getting more of one thing than they like. But there is a sense of community between the members and the farmers that springs from that shared risk.
Heifer International is a global non-profit that I plan to write more about in the future, but the Ranch itself is what I find most fascinating. The average age of American farmers is 57, but to visit Heifer Ranch it’s easy to see that the face of agriculture is changing. A young man named Ryan heads up the CSA and has two full-time volunteers, Brittany and Kenny. They both are giving a year of unpaid service to learn – and teach – about farming. One of the main projects at the Ranch is to offer sustainable agriculture training to farmers from impoverished areas in the US. Right now, the focus is on Hughes, a one-diner town in the Arkansas Delta. The practices that Heifer is teaching this community were learned and perfected on the Ranch.
Another major task involves teaching young students about food and farming. Groups of students on field trips or summer programs will visit the farm almost every day and part of their visit gets the students’ hands busy harvesting beans or other easy-to-pick items. While the extra help is valued, Brittany, Kenny and Ryan also get the chance to share their farming experiences and teach an even younger generation about knowing where their food comes from. For the rest of their day, Brittany, Kenny and Ryan spend long days in the hot Arkansas summers working to produce healthy crops for the CSA and learn enough to run their own farms, and maybe CSAs, someday soon.
Half of Heifer’s shareholders are new this year, so it’s likely that they’re learning about or getting involved with a CSA for the first time. One new share holder got involved because a close friend swore by it, and now looks forward to trying a new recipe with seasonal vegetables each week. Another woman loves the convenience of the CSA, but also loves that she knows her farmers and is supporting a good cause. It may not be the best option for everyone, but I think a CSA is a great way to support a local food culture and eat well throughout the year.
One of my favorite places in the world is a town on a small island off the coast of Maine called Stonington. The ferny woods skirting the edge of the water, the rumble of lobster boats, foggy mornings and intensely sunny afternoons are just a few of the things I love about it. Part of my heart is always there, especially in summer when it’s 100+ degrees here and delightfully cool in Stonington.
One of my favorite people on the island is Kyra Alex, exceptional quilter, owner of Lily’s Café, chef, and cookbook author. Her brownies are so good I want to rub them in my hair! They are the perfect dessert for July 4th festivities (so good with homemade vanilla ice cream) and Kyra was kind enough to send me the recipe along with a grilled “fried” chicken.
Even though I now have the know-how to make her brownies myself they’ll never be as good as Kyra’s. They are best eaten sitting in the dining room at Lily’s in the company of the cook.
If you want to know more about Kyra visit her blog LilysHouseStonington.BlogSpot.com. While you are there, be sure to order one of her cookbooks.
Hello all and thank you so much for having me here. I am writing this from beautiful Stonington, an island off the mid-coast of Maine. I have been taking a year of pause from my busy café – Lily’s – where I had the pleasure of meeting Allen through mutual friends, oh so many years ago. As special as he makes us all feel, I know in my heart that it was my brownies that kept him coming back in, year after year.
I am happy to share the recipe for these rich chocolate delights with you, along with something else I just came up with that has made my summer entertaining easy peasy:
Fried chicken – summer style! Shedding its flour and oil coat for a crispy, charred on the grill look. Still moist and tender on the inside with that familiar spicy undertone, yet, light and easy, just like summer should be. A honey mustard dipping sauce really puts a hat on this beauty.
GRILLED “FRIED” CHICKEN
1 chicken approximately 3-4 lbs, cut into 8 pieces
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4-3/4 teaspoon cayenne (depends on how spicy you like it)
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon granulated onion
Mix all rub ingredients in a small bowl. Season chicken all over with rub mixture and place in a medium bowl, cover and chill overnight. Take chicken from fridge about an hour before you are ready to grill it to bring it to room temperature.
The key to cooking the chicken on a charcoal grill is to use indirect heat. Light your coals and pile them to one side. When the coals are white and red hot place the chicken pieces directly over the fire until you get nice grill marks on each piece, moving them over to the cooler non charcoal side as you achieve this. It should only take a few minutes for each piece, so don’t leave them unattended or you will burn your chicken.
Once all the chicken is chargrilled, arrange the pieces so they are all skin side up, cover completely with the grill lid, leaving the vent holes closed and cook until the meat is firm to the touch and the juices run clear, or until the breast meat registers 165 degrees F on a meat thermometer inserted in the middle of the meat, without touching bone. Dark meat should register 175 degrees F.
Let stand for 10 minutes before diving in!
HONEY MUSTARD DIPPING SAUCE
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoon honey
Whisk together, adjust seasoning with salt if necessary. These are approximate amounts, if you like more mustard, add it! Same with the honey.
LEE BAILEY’S OUTRAGEOUS BROWNIES
This makes a big pan of decadent brownies that are just as good the next day.
4 sticks of unsalted butter (1 pound)
16 ounces semisweet chocolate chips, plus 3 cups in a separate bowl
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
6 large eggs
2 1/2 tablespoon instant espresso powder
2 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup sifted, unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups chopped walnuts
Melt together the butter, pound of chocolate chips and unsweetened chocolate until smooth. I do this in a microwave on low, removing them just before they are totally melted and stirring them until smooth. You can also use a double boiler.
Cool the melted chocolate to room temperature – this is very important.
Combine, but don’t whisk, the eggs, espresso, vanilla and sugar in a large bowl. Stir in the cooled chocolate, set aside.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix this into the batter until no white shows. Finally, fold in the remaining 3 cups of chocolate chips and walnuts. Pour into the prepared pan.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached. It is important not to over bake these. Allow to cool and cut into squares.
Lemon verbena with its sugary lemon scent is an herb you’ll want to have in your garden for the fragrance and flavor. And plant it somewhere close! It’s one of those plants that release scent every time you touch the leaves.
Lemon verbena is a shrubby herb with loose, twisting branches and bright green foliage. It can grow to 6 feet tall by 8 feet wide where it is perennial (zones 8 – 11). In my zone 7 garden it stays a little more contained because I grow it in a pot that I move indoors for winter. It’s a fast grower that needs full sun and excellent drainage – too much water will rot the roots! Lemon verbena has a sweet lemon flavor – I tend to use it with desserts and as a seasoning for meat dishes, but I also love placing it near my outdoor living areas so I can enjoy its lemony scent. In fact, it was its lemony scent that led me to make this lemon verbena infused honey, and I can’t wait for you to try it.
What you’ll need
All it takes is a little herb-tidying. Pluck the lemon verbena leaves off of their stems, rinse them, and dry them with a paper towel. Loosely fill a mason jar with the leaves and then pour the honey over the top. While you may want to try it right away, put the jar in a cupboard for a few weeks to infuse. After two weeks strain the honey to remove the leaves.
You’ll end up with a lovely lemon-flavored honey that you can stir into tea, drizzle over nuts or cheese, or use as a sweetener.
Do you want to know more about this great herb? Jump over to the Bonnie Plants website to read about growing lemon verbena.